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Misfit by Conviction

Why George Orwell remains a writer of permanent relevance

September 29, 2002|SIMON LEYS | Simon Leys, the pseudonym of Pierre Ryckmans, is the author of "Chinese Shadows," "The Burning Forest: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics" and "The Angel and the Octopus," a collection of essays that includes "Orwell: The Horror of Politics."

George Orwell particularly liked Hans Christian Andersen's tale "The Emperor's New Clothes," but he remarked that Andersen did not have much psychological acumen: in real life, when a child has the cheek to say that the emperor is naked, he is instantly silenced with a good spanking.

Orwell spoke from personal experience: the brave honesty with which he had exposed the Stalinist betrayal of the Spanish republican cause earned him the rabid enmity of the leftist intelligentsia, which ensured that his firsthand testimony, the magnificent "Homage to Catalonia," was first slandered, then strangled by a strict and tight conspiracy of silence--and then buried off (the original 1938 edition, a modest printing of 1,500 copies, was still half-unsold 13 years later).

Meanwhile, his "Animal Farm" had fallen foul of government censors who attempted to prevent its publication ("Animal Farm" eventually appeared in 1945 after 18 months of rejections and setbacks). Indeed, immediately after the war, political opportunism even led U.S. occupation authorities in Germany to seize and destroy the Ukrainian edition of the book. (It might have offended the Soviet ally!)

And finally--supreme indignity!--the very people against whom Orwell had battled during his journalistic career endeavored to appropriate "Nineteen Eighty-four" as ammunition for their own crusade; the stupidity of the progressive camp, which had failed to see that Orwell was in fact their greatest writer, enabled the reactionaries to press-gang his dead body under their own banner. It is because they had read him that the left thought they should hate Orwell; whereas by not reading Orwell, the right could convince themselves they loved him. The principal merit of Christopher Hitchens' useful--though uneven and sometimes hasty--collection of articles resides in its documented examination of the paradoxes presented by Orwell's posthumous fate.

In politics, the old divide between a brainless left and a heartless right was well captured by Emerson: "There is always a certain meanness in the arguments of the Conservatives combined with a certain superiority in their facts." Orwell's unique strength--and also his curse--derived from the fact that, even though his commitment to socialism remained unwavering, at the same time (and to the great distress of his comrades) he constantly maintained a certain superiority of the facts. He never allowed political dogma to encroach upon his sense of reality; this requires uncommon moral discipline, but in the end, he could truly say: "Where I feel that people like us understand the situation better than the so-called experts, it is not in any power to foretell specific events, but in the power to grasp what kind of world we are living in" (my emphasis). Naturally, such "power" was not likely to endear him to ideologues on his side of politics; as Hitchens shows, half a century later, they still have not forgiven him.

The driving force through Orwell's adult life was his passion for justice. As a young man, he gave up his career in the Burmese Imperial Police out of disgust for all forms of bullying and oppression. This experience marked his political awakening: "I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against their tyrants."

It also set the pattern for his later political attitudes: though his rejection of imperialism and colonialism remained final and uncompromising, he was not blind to the complexity of their human and cultural dimensions. Witness, for instance, the rich ambivalence of his appraisal of Rudyard Kipling: "I worshipped Kipling at thirteen, loathed him at seventeen, enjoyed him at twenty, despised him at twenty-five, and now [in 1936, at the time of Kipling's death] again rather admire him"--and he admired him for his "personal decency" and for his "sense of responsibility."

When fighting against fascism, he retained this awareness of human ambiguity that cannot be reduced to ideological cliches. Jack London fascinated him ("Iron Heel," which Orwell first read when he was 15, left a deep impression on his mind and, 30 years later, was to become a seminal influence upon the conception of "Nineteen Eighty-four"), but he also detected in London a strong fascistic streak.

Early in the war (1941), in a review of H.G. Wells, an author he considered "too sane to understand the modern world," he invoked again, in contrast, the prescient intuition of "Iron Heel" ("a crude book" that is also "a truer prophecy of the future") and, as a corrective to Wells' myopic sanity, he again referred to Kipling, who was "only half-civilized" but, "not being deaf to the evil voices of power and military 'glory,' would have understood the appeal of Hitler, or for that matter, of Stalin." Orwell was not blind to the flaws of figures such as London and Kipling, but he also saw that these very flaws afforded them "the power to grasp what kind of world we are living in."

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